Northwest Minnesota farm kid helps get dairy message out
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Alan Bjerga thought he'd leave the farm far behind in Minnesota, but he discovered his knowledge of growing up in dairy country was a unique knowledge base in an urban world, and an especially rare advantage in Washington, D.C.
On Oct. 1, 2018, Bjerga, 45, became vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation. The trade group represents dairy farmers who are members of cooperative processors, ranging from small co-ops to the big ones, including Land O'Lakes and Dairy Farmers of America.
Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the NMPF, said Bjerga's skills in journalism have helped the group "sharpen our message" on Food and Drug Administration labeling of what the industry terms as "fake" milk products, for plant-based beverages and plant-based "dairy imitators" using dairy terminology without any milk.
Bjerga has also helped get the message out on new and improved dairy safety net policies in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Bjerga wants them to know that the new Dairy Margin Coverage Plan offers a "new and improved safety net" in the 2018 Farm Bill, compared to the Margin Protection Plan from 2014.
"We are in our fifth year of low prices in dairy. That has pushed a lot of farms to the breaking point, and frankly, during that time, the federal government hasn't been of much assistance to producers," Bjerga says.
The new program creates more affordable rates for dairy farmers to purchase coverage to give them a certain margin between feed costs and the price of milk, providing income to stay afloat. There is extra incentives for smaller farms with fewer than 200 to 220 cows, depending on their production level.
The amount of margin under the new program is higher, with greater flexibility between the main program and other programs, and greater flexibility in mixing and matching programs, which could help farms of various sizes. The program signup starts in mid-June with payments expected by mid-July. The program is going to be retroactive to the beginning of the year.
Farmers can immediately go to bankers or to websites to figure out the benefits to an individual situation.
"We're hoping this will help some dairy farmers hang on," Bjerga says.
Bjerga grew up in dairy country near Motley, Minn. His father was a highway patrolman who on the side raised beef cattle and 90 head of ewes.
After graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., in 1995, he went on to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master's degree in mass communications and became managing editor of the school's Minnesota Daily newspaper.
He went to work for the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle and became the Eagle's national correspondent in Washington, D.C., one week before the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. "Everyone was thrown into intelligence, terrorism and national security issues," he says.
Later that fall, as the Capital was coming back toward normalcy, the 2002 Farm Bill was going through the House of Representatives, and Bjerga—the youngest and least experienced in the bureau— was assigned to cover it.
Bjerga said he found it satisfying to communicate "the importance of—and have an accurate picture of what agriculture is and where it's going—to audiences that may not be thinking about it." He said he found that many people "'know' a lot of things that aren't necessarily quite right."
Bjerga would become a U.S. Department of Agriculture beat reporter with Bloomberg News. He worked there for 12 years, winning a number of awards, including the North American Agricultural Journalists ag journalist of the year honors. He was among the nation's top specialists covering the several farm bills—2002, 2008, 2014 and 2018.
He was president of the National Press Club in 2010. In 2011, he wrote "Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest."
In 2018, he made a switch from journalism to an advocacy role. With the National Milk Producers Federation, he wants to help them be aware of issues, including policy and market forces, including competition from other beverages.
He says it's his job to help in an era of proliferating media channels and on-line communications, including Twitter, and to keep in mind Capitol Hill, dairy farms, cooperatives, consumer groups.
"All of them become part of public policy solutions, and you have to be thinking of all of these audiences and their interest," he says.